Can Europe Make It?

Central Alps: The convenient erasure of history

A Second World War bunker in northern Italy has just been demolished despite its importance as a reminder of the country’s fascist past

Alessio Colonnelli
8 March 2021, 3.21pm
Demolition of Bunker 7, dating from 1939, in February 2021
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Screenshot: Facebook.

A Second World War bunker in the very north of Italy, similar to those you can visit on the beaches of Normandy, was recently blown to bits. Not accidentally, not by zealous activists, not even by an earthquake – but intentionally, ordered to do so by the local authority.

This destructive act was not mentioned anywhere on Italy’s national news.  A reflection of wider neglect, perhaps? Sure, bunkers aren't on a par with castles, palaces or Ancient Roman ruins; they are a reminder, however, of the bloodiest war that mankind has ever fought. 

Archaeologists and historians were dismayed. A section of the “Bolzano South Barrage – a key piece of Benito Mussolini's Alpine Wall – is now rubble. “The land is private, the bulldozers’ devastation is completely legal, but the loss remains,” wrote Alto Adige, a local daily newspaper. 

Mussolini didn't fully trust Hitler. Built by the dictator's engineers shortly before the Second World War, the Alpine Wall was a vast defensive system against the Third Reich. A network of anti-tank ditches and bunkers that had its focus in the central Alps, It ran for 1,800 kilometres from the Mont Blanc region of the Aosta Valley to Fiume (now in Croatia).

Good riddance, some may think. But really, wasn't there another way other than demolition? This is the question posed by experts at the Archaeological Group of Bolzano. Also known as Bozen, this is Italy's northernmost city and capital of South Tyrol, a province Mussolini tried to Italianise by brutal means. They take exception with the region's autonomous government – headed by the conservative South Tyrolean People's Party (SVP) – which in their view has shown no interest in preserving this historical site. According to local historian Alberto Alberti, quoted in Alto Adige: “Anywhere else, this network of structures would be the focus of studies, tourist brochures, urban enhancement and ground for researchers.”

Never again?

Bunker 7, as it was officially termed, sitting between the city's main cemetery and the industrial zone, was the twin of Bunker 11. The two ran in a straight line down to the anti-tank ditch that led from the cemetery to the Isarco/Eisack river, which splits Bolzano/Bozen in two halves.

Today, that ditch has been filled in to make room for a main road, an artery feeding the industrial zone. But what need was there to destroy the bunker, a key piece of a larger system? Yes, a new section of pipework for an energy-efficient heating system has to be built there, which is good for both the environment and people's pockets – but at the cost of palpable history. Technology never asked to replace visual memory. In fact, it is there to aid it. Or at least to facilitate compromise. 

On the other hand, those tempted to equate Confederate and slavers' statues with a dictator's bunker miss the point. The vaguely futuristic-looking, squat block of concrete (nowhere near any pretty Alpine meadows, but bang in the middle of a grey urban setting) was a reminder of the saddest state of affairs Italy and Europe found themselves in, after a series of mistakes that mustn't be repeated. The bunker was built by a country – Italy – that offered tangible help to the nastiest project – Germany's – that humanity ever spawned. All the same, conniving Italy had reasons to fear such a project; you'd call its stance grotesque if only it weren't so utterly tragic. It was a monument to stupidity that was worth keeping if contextualised.

It’s strange that neither the government in Rome nor the SVP ( nationalist German-language organisation that has governed South Tyrol unchallenged for seven decades) ever saw the need to list the  bunker as an important historical site.

Bunker expert Heimo Prünster told Dolomiten, the main regional newspaper: “In Italy, it was one of a kind.” To which deputy mayor Luis Walcher replied: “The [private] landowner has his rights.” Of course, he does. Politics allowed him to have them. Let's only hope this has nothing to do with party donations.

This piece was published on the author's blog, Thoughts on Europe, on March 1, 2021

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